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Gingrich’s tightrope walk

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Esther Cepeda
December 1, 2011
— Moments after the last Republican presidential candidate debate ended, the ever-breathless blogosphere started wondering if Newt Gingrich was making a play for the Latino vote with his controversial remarks about being humane to America’s 11 million illegal immigrants.

Of course he was. Gingrich may be many things—a highly paid consultant to eyebrow-raising clients, a philanderer and a prolific, if ungifted, author—but he’s not ignorant of Hispanic voting power.


For the past few years, Gingrich has been working overtime to eradicate the fallout from his infamous 2007 speech to the National Federation of Republican Women when he said Spanish was “the language of living in a ghetto.” Unlike other Republicans who combine their desire for small government and low taxes with a head-on-fire dislike of illegal immigrants, Gingrich has gone in the opposite direction of the hard-liners and built some platforms on which to gamely court Latinos.


In September 2009, he started “The Americano,” a bilingual news and opinion site geared toward “celebrating Latino heritage and conservatism in America.” Founded and edited by Sylvia Garcia, a longtime Gingrich Communications employee who had also overseen his Spanish-language website, the site launched with the aim of being “inclusive of all americanos that have come to live to the United States.”

“Whether you are first-, second-, third- or fourth-generation Hispanic—or whether you speak English or Spanish or both,” the website’s “About Us” page says, “our content is catered to what unites us all, which is our American Hispanic Heritage.”


Last December, “The Americano” had its first national forum, pulling together a who’s who of Hispanic conservatives to discuss a variety of leadership topics, including immigration and national security, which no doubt provided much input to Gingrich’s immigration stance. The event got big play on Latino traditional and social media.


So there’s no mistaking that Gingrich has been diligently courting Latino voters. But doing that while still convincing the far-right wing of the Republican Party that he’s not a “Republican in name only” because of his centrist immigration views is a difficult tightrope to walk.


Unfortunately for Gingrich, the only immigration view most people seem to be able to agree on is that the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli amnesty didn’t work. And though immigration is not the top concern for Latino or other voters, it provokes the strongest emotions from both sides. As a result, because Gingrich’s immigration “solutions” are largely moderate and reasonable, they are the antithesis of what the vocal extremes deem acceptable.


Every plank of his treatise can be ardently disputed by both sides. For instance, Gingrich’s No. 1 priority is for the border to be “controlled.” But while ultra-liberals, citing the unprecedented show of force at the border and record number of deportations, scoff at what they see as an accomplished goal, ultra-conservatives refuse to consider any other aspects of immigration law reform until there is an air-tight seal between the U.S. and the rest of the world.


We could pingpong Gingrich’s other points, too: Visa and guest-worker programs seem to be held in equally low regard by both sides, though for different reasons, and neither side seems willing to entertain a permanent noncitizen “legal” status. As I recall, there was practically a second civil war the last time anyone seriously suggested, as Gingrich does, that our country’s official language should be English.


If we’ve learned anything in the last few years, it’s that neither the far right nor the far left wants compromise—their arguments are framed only as triumphant wins or tragic losses. This makes Gingrich’s middle-ground stance his greatest weakness concerning the immigration issue.


After the debate, his campaign was diligently tweeting out the link to his official immigration platform, “10 Steps to a Legal Nation.” Since winning the endorsement of The Union Leader, New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, Gingrich’s website’s home page has prominently featured the news headline “Newt’s Plan to Secure the Border First,” and this has become the talking point du jour.


Who can blame him? Taking the middle ground on immigration is like setting up shop in Death Valley. The end of the balancing act has already begun. Watch for Gingrich to leap off the tightrope with a hard-right lurch.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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